My recent journey to South Africa to witness its epic sprint to democracy plunged me, like a pebble flung into a stream, deep into memories of my childhood in Africa.
Beside unleashing bred-in-bone memories, my sojourn forced me to examine thoughts I had long held, especially about myself. By the time I left South Africa, my persona, carefully constructed as to be shorn of race, had been sorely tested, shaken and ultimately redrawn.
My story began 31 years ago in Accra, Ghana, West Africa, where I was born.
The strongest ripple of boyhood memory was of a night lit by the moon as my mother, Esther Lamiley Mills, sang sweet songs to me while I tapped on a drum. It was masquerade season, similar to Halloween, and we sat in a makeshift hut of palm fronds we had put up in a small compound that my grandfather shared with his children. I was 5 years old and my mother was 20.
Shortly before my father came to America, I was separated from my mother and sent to Nigeria to live with my father’s family. Ten years would pass before I saw her again. And that was for a too-brief visit in April 1979, on the day I left Africa to come to the United States.
I haven’t seen my mother since.
It was here in America that I first confronted my racial identity. During my 15 years here, I have had many opportunities to confront what it means to be an American, an African, a black, a man.
I soon realized, for instance, that I wasn’t much like the American blacks that I encountered on Chicago’s South Side.
They saw me as different too; my accent elicited derision from them.
But my strange way of speaking has been both a bane and a boon. Once, while on assignment for a journalism project, a man in Troy, Ill., chased me from his home, with the help from his dog, before a word was spoken between us. Later, on hearing my “accent” (I telephoned him), he not only changed his mind and cooperated with me, he helped me on the project by becoming my personal guide through Troy.
I appreciated the help but have long been troubled by the subtext: I was all right because, as he heard on the phone, I was African. Clearly I would not have been all right as an American black.
Incidents like this, over the years, caused me to construct a new persona for myself. I saw myself as a journalist: to me, that had little to do with race, or even gender. I did not deny my race, but I did not make an issue of it. And I did not let being black, or being African, keep me from any endeavor.
So, when I went back to Africa in March, with my Daily News colleague Gene Mustain, to cover the South African elections, I saw myself as a newspaper reporter. It was another assignment. But the world has a way of ridding us of our illusions.
As I traveled to the deepest parts of South Africa, images of myself as a boy growing up in Africa danced in my mind. At another time, in a different place, I had been the boy I saw at a refugee camp south of Durban using a dirty rag to chase away ravenous flies from sores on his legs.
The misery and squalor of black South African townships like Soweto called up for me Mamprobi, the Ghanaian fishing village where I learned about hunger and poverty.
Soweto boys playing soccer barefoot on open fields reminded me of joyous times, too, of whole days spent scurrying around dirt fields, chasing soccer balls.
But the Africa of my boyhood, sadly, seems to be disappearing. The misery on the continent has deepened and, as anyone with the most rudimentary interest in what is going on in Rwanda knows, the bloodletting has grown more tragic.
South Africa, too, once the very definition of tragedy, is changing—but not just in the obvious ways. Its journey toward modern statehood remains a struggle for identity.
The great goal for many of the South African people appears to be America. Many people we met told us they want to come here. Those who would remain, it seems, would reinvent the nation as the U.S.A.
Music by Mariah Carey, Tevin Campbell and Michael Jackson, and American soap operas, situation comedies and news programs dominate South African airwaves.
Cape Town has seen a festering of American-style shopping malls, populated by teenagers in American clothes.
I found myself caught in this identity struggle. Blacks often spoke Zulu to me, then answered my befuddlement with wonder that I, a black man, could be from America. Is there apartheid in America, some asked. Racism is everywhere, I would reply.
Whites I met treated me differently from their black fellow citizens, especially after they heard my accent—colored now by 15 years of living in America.
On entering a Cape Town convenience store one day, a bejeweled white woman behind the counter was at once indifferent to and wary of me. But when I opened my mouth, her face lit up.
“You are an American,” she asked and answered her own question.
This occasion called for no words and I didn’t offer any, just a studied grin that serves me well in situations like this. At this point, I could ask her for anything in the world—except for, maybe, her daughter’s hand in marriage—and she would gladly have given it. Then, she confounded me.
“Take me with you,” she said to me, I suspect only half jokingly.
And so, in Africa—unlike Illinois—it was all right to be an American black. Or so I began to believe.
It wasn’t until a howling mob of neo-Nazi thugs objected to my presence at their April 28 rally that I realized that, to some, only my color matters. Afrikaner Resistance Movement thugs, armed with assault weapons, encircled and attacked me.
Rowena Baird, one of two interpreters with us that day, would later question my judgment for standing so close to the front with other reporters, photographers and TV crews there to cover the rally.
“You still think of yourself as a reporter, not as a black man,” she said to me.
Though I have lived in America for 15 years and learned very well the different dances people here are so good at doing around the issue of race, the attack on my by neo-Nazis was an awakening.
When South African whites treated me with kindness because they saw me as an “American,” not an African, they took away a little of my humanity. The hateful ones among them gave me back my African-ness. But at what price? I don’t know.
My awakening is not, for me, a road-to-Damascus experience and it won’t force me to significantly alter my view of the world. I did not come away with a deeper racial understanding, or identity, for instance.
My South African odyssey merely heightened my awareness of my different selves. And reminded me that everyone I meet in this life will inflict upon me their own definitions of who I am. But I am only comfortable with my own definition: journalist.
I am back home now, in New York. On my flight to JFK Airport, I found myself dwelling on my other home, in Africa. I arrived at my New York City apartment to find waiting for me a letter from my mother.
Unbeknownst to me, she had seen me recently. On television.
“Dear son Michael,” he letter began. “I received your letter on the 29th of April. On that same day, I saw you being molested on television. I was so sad. I thank God that you were not arrested or shot. I have registered your name in a prayer group and you are prayed for everyday,” she continued. “Please take good care of yourself.”
I’ll do that. I also know that I’ll be back home in Africa this fall to visit my mother.
Michael O. Allen is a Daily News reporter.